Category Archives: History

Thoroughly Modern Monster: On the Origin of Zombies (or, Hollywood Invented All of Our Monsters)

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Today we will wrap up our “Thoroughly Modern Monster” mini-series (you can find the previous installments here, here, and here) with a monster that’s gained a significant (shuffling and moaning) following: the zombie. Zombies are big right now, and I won’t bore you by naming all the zombie movies, tv shows, comics, books, and video games that have come out recently. They (along with vampires) have been the hot monster a la mode for some time now.

But where did zombies come from? Folks, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you’ve read my other monster history posts you may have noticed a pattern: there are some legends that have almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the monster, then someone makes a movie or writes a book about them where the monster is similar to the original in name only, and the movie monster gives us the modern conception. It happened with werewolves in early Hollywood. It happened to vampires in popular 19th century literature (and was then cemented in the public consciousness forever by, yes, early Hollywood). So the question that might be on our mind is “Are modern zombies also based almost entirely off of 1920s Hollywood monster movies?” To which I can confidently answer, no.

They’re based almost entirely off of 1960s Hollywood. With a dash of 30s Hollywood sprinkled on top, for flavor.

“But Mark,” you might object (I can tell you’re the contrary type) “don’t zombies come from voodoo or something? I’m sure I heard that once from a made for TV documentary/book of fun monster facts/back of a cereal box.” To which I can only reply with a sincere “Kinda.” The word zombie does come from Haitian voodoo. And Haitian voodoo does have legends (mostly small and unimportant legends, compared to the rest of the religion) about certain dark voodoo magics that can bring dead bodies to life to serve their masters. But these zombies have nothing to do with modern zombies. Just for starters, voodoo zombies:

-Aren’t rotting corpses

-Don’t feed on human flesh

-Can’t turn other people into zombies

-Follow commands

-Can perform complicated tasks

-Arguably aren’t even dead! Not in the way modern zombies are anyway! If you cut one of their heads off it wouldn’t still be moving around, snapping at you!

Voodoo zombies are just creepy slaves. It’s like “Hey, you know how we are all taken from Africa and made into slaves to work the fields till we die? Can you imagine if someone dug up our dead bodies and made them keep working forever? That would suck!” That’s the basic idea behind Haitian voodoo zombies. They aren’t like modern zombies at all.

The modern zombie can be traced back to one film: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Now there are a few obvious differences between Romero’s zombies and the modern conception, namely that the zombies were created by radiation from Venus (it makes sense in context) instead of a virus, but almost everything else is the same. Romero’s zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, they shuffle and moan and stagger about, they hunger for human flesh, and if they kill you then you become one too. It is here, from this movie, that all future modern zombie media takes its source. This is the Ur-Zombie, and it’s only 46 years old.

So why do we call them zombies if they don’t have anything to do with Haitian zombies? Well Romero never actually calls the monsters in his movie zombies. At no point in the film is that name used, and Romero wasn’t thinking about Haitian zombies when he was developing the plot (instead drawing influence from the book I am Legend). It was only after the movie came out that fans started calling the monsters from the movie “zombies,” and the name stuck.

Remember when I said that 1930s Hollywood was also involved somehow? That’s because in the 20s and 30s Hollywood made several horror movies about zombies. And I mean real zombies this time, good and proper Haitian zombies with none of this “brains” business. Movies like White Zombie featured innocent whites being menaced by frightening black people and their voodoo magic. These zombies behave as they should: working hard in a sugar plantation, staring blankly into space, and doing whatever their master commands. It was movies like these that put the word “zombie” in the national consciousness, and why fans of Night of the Living Dead even thought to use the term in regards to Romero’s shuffling horrors.

So, as we can see, modern zombies are terribly, terribly young. But in some ways they are also terribly old. Romero said in interviews later that the idea for his monsters came when he asked himself the question: “what if the dead stopped staying dead?” This idea isn’t new; it harkens back to an ancient fear that seems essential to the make-up of humanity as a whole: the fear of dead bodies. People have been telling stories about revenants for as long as we’ve existed. Dead bodies are frightening, unnatural things.

The only thing that would make them scarier…is if they got up.

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Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Modern Vampire

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As I mentioned two weeks ago, there is a fairly solid dividing line in history that separates the werewolves we have today (those that change under the full moon, can only be killed by silver, take a half-man half-wolf form, and spread their curse through bites) and the werewolves of the past (change whenever they want, can be killed in the normal ways, take the form of a wolf, become a werewolf through magic ceremonies, etc). That dividing line was the wolfman horror movies of early Hollywood. Before Hollywood we have the old kind of werewolf, after Hollywood we have the modern beast, and the differences between the two are so great that you can argue that they share nothing except the name. Vampires have an extremely similar story, only their dividing line comes in 1819 with the publishing of the short novel The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Polidori’s book is the first place where we see a high society, handsome, rich, and suave vampire who masquerades as a human and sucks the blood of beautiful maidens all over Europe. The book, and a popular play based off of it, sparked a vampire craze in Europe that we could emphasize with today. Just as our current vampire craze has spawned off numerous book series, tv shows, and movies about vampires Polidori’s book inspired numerous plays and novels that expanded on his original vampire, the dashing and dangerous Lord Ruthven. Most of us think of writing from previous centuries of consisting solely of stuffy old “classics” or great works of literature that are far more serious and sophisticated than the commercial trash that is printed today. The truth is that previous centuries had just as much commercial fluff and sensational pop works as we do today. One such work from the 1840s was Varney the Vampire, a serialized story telling the tale of a vampire from week to week. Varney was roughly equivalent to what we might consider comic books today, as it consisted of short stories that emphasized action, horror, and suspense.

Being a work of popular fiction that was written by multiple authors over its run, Varney wasn’t particularly consistent in regards to its vampire lore. The creation of Varney himself is muddled, with several competing origin stories that appear throughout the series. In one account we learn that Varney became a vampire when he betrayed a friend and then killed his own son in a fit of rage, which harkens back to the old vampire legends about great sinners rising from their graves to feed on the living. Another edition has Varney being created by a scientist using electricity a la Frankenstein. Varney often had conflicting abilities and motivations, but from that mess of a work many of the modern vampire tropes were born. Varney has two fangs, leaves two puncture marks on the necks of his victims, has super strength, can hypnotize people, and can turn others into vampires. Perhaps most notably Varney is the first sympathetic vampire in the world; we see the stories through his point of view, and he regularly regrets what he has become. He even attempts to cure his “condition” and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. This is an incredible breakthrough; before this point all vampires, even the Polidori’s, were viewed as either mindless monsters or incomprehensible creatures of pure evil. Varney turns all that upside down by asking what it would like to be a vampire and still retain your human mind, your human memories, and your human outlook.

In other words, Varney brought angst to the vampire mythos. So, The Vampyre made vampires suave and sophisticated, and Varney added angst. That leaves one primarily modern character trait of vampires to go: sexuality. In 1871 a slightly more sophisticated vampire serial appears, titled Carmilla. This story itself is pretty long and suspenseful and full of foreshadowing and all that, but for our purposes it can be easily summarized: a young woman becomes friends with another young woman and then later they discover that one of the young women is a vampire and along the way it’s highly implied that she’s a lesbian as well. This story is notable on two points: introducing the idea of vampires who are hundreds of years old but appear to be children (because they died young) and vampires as sexual creatures. The vampires of the old legends, being revenants, are certainly nothing you could easily think about sexually, and though the vampire in The Vampyre woos women it is only for the purpose of devouring their blood. This is the first story where we get the strong impression that vampires carnal desires could extend to more than just hemoglobin. This 19th century vampire progression finally culminates in what we now consider the crown jewel of vampire lore: Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Dracula gives us the first appearance of arch-vampire Count Dracula himself, and pulls together all the scattered vampire tropes the past century had been throwing out there. Dracula is a suave and sophisticated aristocrat, who not only hungers from blood but also possesses several vampire wives, bringing female vampires and sexuality back into play. True, there is little angst seen from Dracula over being a vampire, but there is certainly a lot of angst among the main characters after Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire of her own. Here we are also supplied with the now traditional modes of hunting vampires: garlic, staking through the heart, holy water, the whole nine yards.

However, Dracula was not a commercial success in its own time. Stoker died in poverty, and arguably Varney or Carmilla were both far more popular during their respective runs. Why then is Dracula the most famous vampire book ever written? Why does its ideas and themes still run through the vampire mythos to this day? Why is Count Dracula more famous than Carmilla, or Varney, or even Lord Ruthven? The answer, as with werewolves, is movies. In 1922 the German film Nosferatu was released to the public. The movie itself was pretty much a take for take adaptation of Dracula but with names changed to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate. Now, the film is important on its own (as we shall see) but it is also responsible for inventing one of the most enduring features of the modern vampire mythos: the vampires vulnerability to sunlight. Before Nosferatu vampires had little trouble walking about during the day. Lord Ruthven wasn’t bothered by it, Carmilla merely disliked it, and all sunlight did to Count Dracula was weaken him slightly. However Nosferatu, deviating from the book, shows the vampire being defeated by the dawn of the sun, whose light causes him to burst into smoke. This weakness to sunlight would by picked up by the vampire stories to come, until we reach the modern day where you can find nerds everywhere complaining about how the sun doesn’t hurt Twilight vampires.

The film was a massive success, and Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. She won her case, and every copy of the film (except for one that survived to the modern day) was destroyed. However the film was so popular that it was soon followed by a stage version which toured Europe and spread vampire fever. (Fun fact: the stage play is where the Count Dracula started wearing that ridiculous black cape with the super high collar. The purpose of the collar was so that the actor playing Dracula could turn his back to the audience and seem to disappear against a black backdrop, creating a spooky effect. Somehow, the silly cape stuck with the character.)

Eventually the play toured the US where it caught the attention of Hollywood. Young producer Carl Laemmle Jr., after seeing Nosferatu’s initial success legally bought the movie rights from the Stoker estate. In 1931 the famous Universal movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to huge commercial success. Since that film was released the book Dracula has never gone out of print, and the legacy of Count Dracula was set in stone, along with the all the other “modern” vampires he had come to represent.

Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Primal Vampire

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Today we’re going to look at vampires. Vampires are pretty popular right now. Just about anybody could tell you what a vampire is these days, even if they’re not a huge nerd or horror fan. Pale, beautiful, suave, mysterious, superpowered creatures of the night who are hurt by sunlight and drink the blood of the living. But as we saw with werewolves last week, monsters can change a lot over time. How old are vampires as we know them?

Like werewolves, the answer is complicated because it depends on what you define as a vampire. If you define a vampire as an undead monster who drinks human blood than vampires have been around since ancient times, and across most cultures. This is a fact you might find between the pages of a YA vampire series, or on a fun Halloween facts page, or even in the dialogue of a TV series. But are vampires really so old, and really spread over so many cultures? No. No, they really aren’t.

To be sure multiple ancient cultures across the globe have stories of blood drinking undead, but these monsters have almost nothing to do with vampires. They are far better defined as revenants. A revenant is a corpse that has left it’s place of burial and roams around performing various kinds of mischief, from slaughtering livestock and spreading plague, to drinking blood and devouring flesh. Revenants take many forms and have many names, but they all share the same basic idea: someone dies and for some reason or another their corpse does not remain at rest.

And when I say corpse, I really mean corpse. Revenants are shambling, bloated, rotting, stinking things. They are not sexy. They are not sauve. They have far more in common with modern zombies than modern vampires.

Now we have scattered stories of various revenants from ancient times up through the Middle Ages. However between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment periods we start to see a more specific type of revenant legend develop. In southeast Europe during this time period is where the vampire legend is actually born. It is during this time period that we begin to see vampire panics, vampire trials, and widespread anti-vampire burial practices (which we’ll get to later). But again, these vampires are far different from the ones we know today. Arguably they are far scarier as well.

It can be hard for modern readers, with their heads full of True Blood and Interview with a Vampire to really understand what these primal vampires were like. Let me try to explain with a short story:

It’s 1672. You are a Bulgarian peasant, living in a small village up in the hills. You know everybody in town and everybody knows you. One day your brother dies. Perhaps he got sick, or maybe it was an accident of some kind, but however it happened he’s dead and it’s time to consign his remains to the earth. The funeral procession brings his coffin up to the church graveyard on top of a hill overlooking the village, where he is given his last rites and buried beneath the earth.

You’re sad, of course. This is a real tragedy, and you’ll miss your brother terribly. However you have to get back to working the land, and you try to put the bad memories behind you. However, in the weeks after the burial, bad things start happening. A local farmer loses some of his sheep: one is found mutilated in the woods. Probably wolves. Then a local boy gets sick. He starts to waste away, turning weak and pale. Soon he can no longer get out of bed. Eventually he dies. They say it was consumption. Soon more people are getting sick. A few more animals have been lost. People are starting to talk. You try to ignore it. Then, one dark, cloudy night, you hear a scream outside your door. It’s one of your goats, and it’s crying bloody murder. You run outside and check the pen, but the goat is gone. The other animals are terrified. You try to calm them down, when suddenly you see him. Your farm is near the old woods, far from town. There isn’t anyone around for over a mile, but there in the trees is a figure is crouched over. It’s hard to see in the dark, but the figure is stooping over something, holding it to it’s mouth. As you watch it suddenly turns to look at you, slowly. It’s too far away to see clearly, but your blood goes cold in your veins. The figure drops it’s load, and begins to lumber over to you. It staggers as it walks, but it’s picking up speed. You quickly run back inside and bolt the door on your little shack. You peer through the crack around the doorframe, and watch as the figure comes closer. It’s a human alright, but not like any you’ve seen before. His body is bloated and his skin blotched with purple like fresh bruises. His clothes are tattered, barely hanging on to his swollen body. The air is filled with the smell of death, clogging your nostrils and almost sending you into a coughing fit. As it comes closer you see that blood is dripping from its mouth and nose, sending red rivulets over a doughy and mottled face. You put all your weight against the door as the creature comes up to it, pounding with its fists.

Suddenly your heart stops as you hear it speak, speak with a distorted and pleading voice. But even through the distortion you recognize it.

“Let me come in, brother. I’m so cold brother. Please. Please let me in.”
And that, my friends, is an old fashioned vampire. A corpse bloated and purple with blood and decay, the corpse of someone you likely knew and perhaps loved, walking about and devouring the living There are a few other noticeable differences between this “classic” vampire and the modern conception. For example, early vampires could come out in daylight just fine and were not hurt by the sun; it was merely that they were more active at night. Also there was no clear idea of how one became a vampire. Some people thought that vampires formed when evil spirits took control of recently killed corpses. This would lead some people to include holy objects such as crosses or communion wafers with the deceased in order to drive such evil spirits away. It’s also the origin of the idea that vampires will be repelled by crucifixes and harmed by holy water.

Another theory was that vampires were great sinners in life who had committed some terrible crime (perhaps killing a loved one, or cannibalism) and that whatever heinous acts they had committed would cause them to become a monster. Others didn’t know why vampires became vampires, but still believed that they could happen and that you had to be prepared. Though a variety of objects and plants (such as garlic and hawthorn, or crucibles and scattered rice) could help protect you from a vampire the creature would continue to terrorize the area until someone hunted it down and did something about it.

That’s why they can still find corpses from this period that have stakes driven through their hearts. However we’re liable to misunderstand this too. The purpose of the stakes wasn’t to kill the vampire: after all, how can you kill a corpse? How can you kill what is already dead? No, the purpose of the stake was to literally pin the creature to its grave, preventing it from physically rising to feast on the living. And stakes are just one of many ways to accomplish that goal. Corpses of suspected vampires had their heads chopped off, their leg tendons severed, their arms and legs bound in iron chains, or any other way they could think of to prevent them from escaping their coffins.

That’s the way it worked: if people started getting sick and dying, or animals disappeared, and people began to suspect a vampire, they would soon form a posse and start digging up recent burials. They would look for a corpse that didn’t seem to be decaying properly, or one that was swollen or showed signs of blood around the mouth. They would then take that corpse and do whatever they could to contain it, hoping to God that it wouldn’t “wake up” while they were doing the deed. Many villages had individuals who were given the particular responsibility of finding and binding vampires: some of these “vampire hunters” even persisted into the 1900s.

Actual belief in vampires peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling out of fashion during the enlightenment. After that something happened that would transform the vampire legend entirely. But that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, if you bemoan the newest vampire flick featuring hunky bloodsuckers that look like they came out of the pages of a fashion magazine; take heart, and remember a time when vampires were truly something to be feared! Something horrible, gross, unsettling, and terrible.

Next week we’ll find out how all that changed.

Thoroughly Modern Monster: A History of Werewolves

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Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.

Let’s start from the beginning.

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Antiquity

In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.

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The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…

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The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)

Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:

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The Modern Period to Today

Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.

The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.

Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?

Happy blood moon.

Bury the Suicide at the Crossroads: Why the Medieval Church Was More Enlightened Than They Appeared

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I recently discovered the popular podcast Freakonomics. It’s a kind of educational program in the same vein as Radiolab or This American Life where interesting stories and ideas are shared in an entertaining format. One of the first episodes I listened to was called “The Suicide Paradox” and what I heard there inspired a line of thought that spread through my mind until it was filled to the point where I knew I would have to make a post out of it.

The episode dealt, as the name suggests, with suicide, and they used a fascinating hook in order to draw the listener in. They interviewed a professor who had spent much of his life living with and studying an Amazonian tribe. Early on, when he first came to the tribe, he shared with them a story that had affected his life deeply: the story of his stepmother’s suicide. However, when he was finished, he found that the entire tribe was laughing. When he asked them why they were laughing at such a tragic story they replied that it was because she had killed herself. They found the idea of someone killing themselves as ridiculous. Who had ever heard of such a crazy thing? People kill animals and sometimes kill each other, but what kind of clown would try to kill themselves? No one in the tribe had ever committed suicide. To this day none of them have. I was, of course, very interested in discovering why this tribe was in such a favorable position. Unfortunately this opening story was merely a hook; they never came back to give a satisfying answer to that question. However what they did have to say has given me a theory.

You see the episode also featured interviews with experts in suicide, and those experts, among other things, talked about the Werther Effect. The Werther Effect is named after the character in an 18th century popular book who committed suicide after his love became engaged to another. This book supposedly started a rash of copycat suicides, with young men all over Europe offing themselves in a manner similar to the book. The Werther Effect was shown to be a real phenomenon after a series of sociological studies which showed that the suicide rate goes up after a famous suicide occurs. For example, it is estimated that Marylyn Monroe’s suicide may have led to 200 more suicides in the months to come than would normally have occurred. Because of this many media outlets have a policy of not reporting on suicides, or to do their best not to glorify the act if they do report on it.

The podcast ended by discussing Hungary, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They interviewed an old Hungarian man who has spent most of his life fighting against suicide, setting up hotlines and doing research and trying to bring the rate of suicides down to a normal level. One thing he mentioned stuck with me: he said that in Hungary suicide is considered a brave act, something courageous even.

All of this led me to think about a subject that used to trouble me about the history of the Christianity. That subject was the treatment of suicides by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In medieval times suicide was not just frowned upon: suicide was a crime. Medieval suicides typically could not be buried in the church graveyard, or in any other consecrated ground. Sometimes their bodies were flung ignobly into a ditch. Others were decapitated before burial, or their bodies were staked to the ground. On occasion suicides were buried under a crossroad so that they would be symbolically stepped on by all who passed by. These punishments were even harsher then than they would be if instituted today: in a medieval village, where practically everyone knows each other and where weddings and funerals are truly communal events, the lack of a proper funeral and the public shame that would bring would be powerful. Everyone in town would know about the suicide, and everyone would know that it brought shame and disgrace.

When I had first learned of these practices they struck me as very barbaric and cruel. After all the person who commits suicide is typically someone who is in deep depression or sorrow. To take a person who was so troubled and sad that they took their own life and then cast such shame and disgrace on them for doing so seemed uncompassionate, liking kicking them while they’re down.

But while reflecting on the Werther Effect, it occurred to me that the Church did everything in their power to make suicide appear as unattractive as possible. To a medieval peasant suicide was never brave, courageous, or glamorous. Though suicides occurred they were not performed for the public eye. Suicide was an act that was best kept secret. Those who committed suicide typically did what they could to make it look like an accident. There was a kind of social taboo against discussing suicide, and if a great or powerful individual committed suicide it was usually glossed over in historical accounts. It was only with men who were considered evil or disgraced that suicide was stated clearly as the probable reason for their deaths.

All of this is to say that what seemed at first to me to be cruel and unenlightened practices by the church now seems to me to be terribly enlightened. We know now that suicide is a dangerous idea, and that it can spread from community to community. Every suicide that is publicized strengthens the idea that suicide is an acceptable option for those who are desperate. Even worse are the suicides that are romanticized, where those who slay themselves are considered brave or tragic or poetic. It is a proven scientific fact that communities that romanticize suicide have far greater rates of suicide than normal, and almost every movie star or hit musician that kills themselves has the potential to inspire hundreds to follow their example. And they do not have to be famous: in countries such as Micronesia or Hungary, where suicide is epidemic, things have reached the point where almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide, and because of that suicide has become more and more accepted as a common occurrence. The Amazonian tribesman who finds suicide such a novel and unheard of ideal that it inspires laughter is capable of the same amount of depression, frustration, and despair as the man from Hungary for whom suicide has become a reality of day to day life; and we see that the Hungarian is far more likely to do the deed. Once suicide is considered normal than far more people will take their lives into their own hands and end them.

So what did the Church do in medieval times? They made it clear that suicide was an aberration and a crime against God and man alike. They gave the suicide nothing but shame and disgrace. If their actions seem cruel to us then it is only because we do not understand the danger suicide represents to the entire community. Superstitious peasants in Eastern Europe occasionally staked a corpse to his coffin in order to prevent him from rising from his grave to slay the living: the Catholic Church staked the bodies of suicides to the crossroads for the same reason. They needed to prevent this person from killing others with his action. Today we look on suicide as a very personal decision: but if a despairing person decided to kill themselves with a bomb, while sitting in a public square, we would be less sympathetic of their plight. To the church, and to the modern sociologist, every suicide is a suicide bomber, casting their shrapnel to all who hear of their death. A suicide does not simply take their own lives into their hands, but the lives of those around them. In that light the actions of the Church seem perfectly justified.

We have no solid statistics for the suicide rate during the Middle Ages, as record keeping was not always accurate and most records that were kept have not survived. However Dr. Alexander Murray of Oxford found, from his study of official records from the time, that the recorded suicide rate in Essex in the 13th century was .88 occurrences per 100,000 people (though he admits that this number assumes that all suicides were discovered and recorded and is almost certainly low in that respect). In comparison the suicide rate in the United States today is around 10 per 100,000, and in countries such as Hungary it is more than 20 per 100,000. Even if the medieval record keepers of Essex recorded only 1/5 of all suicides then they would still have less than half of the suicide rate of the US. I do not think it is controversial to claim that the Middle Ages had a lower suicide rate than the modern world. I believe we have the Church to thank for that.

You can’t always tell a book by its cover.

A Defence of Patriotism

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There is a topic that I have seen inspire arguments and flamewars on the internet from time to time. Everyone who has spent time in forum or comment threads knows that some topics are sure to cause a fight. Even mentioning religion, or abortion, or politics is very likely to result in a protracted fight, though the topic I’m thinking of is not nearly so volatile: patriotism. If someone expresses their love for their country, or even pride for their state or hometown, they risk starting an internet brushfire. There are some people who consider “patriot” to be a synonym for “bigot,” and who will make a loud argument about the foolishness of having pride for any particular segment of this earth. They will point out that where we are born or raised are purely arbitrary and accidental. How then can we discriminate against other places and other peoples over an accident of birth/

Whenever I encounter someone with this attitude I typically find myself at a loss for words. No adequate response comes easily to mind because it never occurred to me that anyone would fail to understand why a man might love his home. That is strange enough in itself, but to then accuse the man of being irrational or morally deficient simply because he is proud of his home is something that seems beyond belief. Has this person never felt relief at the first sight of home after a long journey? Has he never thought that his furniture and his silverware and his pots and pans were preferable to those in other houses simply because they were his? Has he never traveled far away and been homesick?

Perhaps he has, or perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he would say that none of those things make a difference. He might say that pride and patriotism and rubbish. The world is so big, perhaps, that only a fool or a madman could claim that any part of it was superior to the rest. To that my only reply is that it is a noble sentiment to say that we should love the entire world, true; but it is foolishness to try to create love for places you do not know by destroying your love for the places you know best.

It brings to mind a quote I recently read by G. K. Chesterton. “Bloch, and the old prophets of pacifism by panic, preached that war would become too horrible for patriots to endure. It sounded to me like saying that an instrument of torture was being prepared by my dentist, that would finally cure me of loving my dog.” The context is a little different, but thinking of the quote made me realize why the flat rejection of all forms of patriotism or home-pride is ridiculous. I love the state of Washington, where I was born and raised, similarly to how I love my dog. I love my dog, but I don’t for a second believe that she is the finest and best canine specimen in the entire world. And if you asked me whether I thought Washington was superior to all other 50 states I would say that I couldn’t make such a judgment: after all, I haven’t been to even half of the states. If you asked me if the little valley I grew up in was the greatest valley in all existence I would have to confess my ignorance of all valleys. And if you asked me to choose the greatest and best of all countries in the world I would have to ask you what metric you were using to measure greatness. However none of that changes that fact that I love my country, I love Washington State, and I positively adore the valley I grew up in. Just as I love my dog, even though I am aware that finer examples of the breed exist in droves.

I am reminded of a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell And Webb Look. The sketch featured a wedding reception where the best man gives his speech. However during the speech he does point out that the bride is most certainly not the most beautiful woman in the world, as her new husband had described, but was instead simply high-average as far as looks are concerned. As people began to boo him he started protesting that it’s the truth, and that the groom isn’t perfect either. The joke was, of course, that the best man was being totally honest and accurate, but that he was missing the point. Yes, the bride was not in fact the most beautiful woman in the world, or the smartest, or the nicest, or the hardest working: but she is still the bride. She is still loved. I love my wife, and I am proud of my wife. I am downright patriotic about my wife! If you want to say that your wife is better than mine then you’re in for a debate! To an untrained eye perhaps my wife is not as beautiful as some: but if you knew her as I do you would know that she is the most beautiful of all. In the same way, the place where I was born may seem ordinary or even ugly to an outsider, but to my own eyes there is no place I love more.

Some will respond by pointing out that our homes are completely arbitrary. It was only by chance that I was born in Washington: why should I be proud of having been born there? I agree that it was a kind of accident, in that I had no hand in it. It was also an accident of chance that led to one particular Labrador becoming my dog. Should I love her less for that? You can even argue that meeting my wife was just as much an accident: if we had gone to different schools or had different friends we never would have met. Yet I still love my wife. It may be an accident of genetics that I was born an American, but I see no reason for that to prevent me from being proud that I am one. I do not begrudge someone born and raised in China for being proud of China: there is much about China that is deserving of pride. There is much about America that is deserving of pride as well, and since I am an American I will gladly take pride in them. We must all play the cards we are dealt, after all.

Finally we must remember that love is not a zero sum game. If I love America it does not mean that I hate Canada. My love for the State of Washington does not negate any love for the city of Washington. My love for my dog does not spell hate for all other dogs. If you wish to remove a man’s patriotism then you wish to remove his love. We cannot make this world a brighter place by snuffing out candles.

Project Gutenburg: A Pretty Neat Place

Have you ever heard about Project Gutenberg? If you haven’t, prepare yourselves! Project Gutenberg is an online database that provides almost 50,000 books for free to anyone who has the gumption to go there and download some. There are no ads, no malware, and absolutely no fees. The catch? What, everything has to have a catch? A person can’t do something out of the goodness of their hearts? How cynical! I’ll have you know that the creators of Project Gutenberg made it out of their love of books and their desire to make books available to all mankind. I can assure you that there is no catch.

There is a major downside though, and that’s the fact that they only have books that have fallen into the public domain. Which means that a good chunk of their 50,000 book library is stuff nobody really wants to read. Fascinating titles such as The Pacification of BurmaThe Voyage of the Deutschland, and digital stacks of science books that are at least 70 to 100 years out of date. When I first visited Project Gutenberg I was quite unimpressed.

But the place is growing on me.

If you take the project at face value then you’re going to be disappointed. However if you treat it as a kind of slag pile of literary history in which you may find diamonds or rubies hidden among the cruft then the project becomes a bit more enticing. The links on the main page seem to favor searching by category, but I recommend searching by author. Think of your favorite author who wrote around or before the turn of the century. Chances are they have his entire bibliography.

I would personally recommend checking out the works of G.K. Chesterton. They have just about every book he’s ever written, and he was an impressive writer. I plugged his book Orthodoxy a while back but he was also famous for his fiction works. Check him out! Or, if not him, then some other late, great author. After all, it’s free! What do you have to lose?

Six Four: Don’t Let the Memory Die

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25 years ago on June 4th a massacre took place in Tiananmen Square.

The event can be difficult to understand without a background in the history of communist China. This can be a difficult subject for a westerner to tackle: the people and places are far away and unfamiliar, and the culture difference can make certain events and movements inexplicable. For anyone who is interested in learning a bit about the massive changes that China has undergone in the last hundred years, but who are either unwilling or unable to spend time doing heavy research on the subject, I would recommend visiting your local library and seeing if they have a copy of A Chinese Life, a graphic novel written and illustrated by a man who has spent his entire life in China and who was born not long after the communists rose to power.

The short and very roughly summarized background is that after Mao Zedong died China began to rapidly change. Mao’s Cultural Revolution had left the country mired in poverty and famine. Under the new chairman, Deng Xiaoping, the country moved from a strictly state owned economy to a hybrid state/free market. This has ultimately resulted in much of China’s rise as the economic power we know it to be today. However those economic changes also resulted in widespread corruption. High ranking members of the Communist Party often used their connections to profit from changing economic landscape, and bribery and nepotism became the new normal for doing business in much of China. At the same time many Chinese university graduates were having trouble starting their careers; people were often hired not because of their skill or education but because of their family connections. This, among other things, led to student protests in the late 1980s. These protests spread to the populace as a whole.  Millions of Chinese began protesting and demonstrating for political reform and an end to corruption. A large group gathered in Tiananmen Square, a public area in the capital city of Beijing.

Many Chinese were hopeful that these protests would lead to reforms. In many ways the protests were similar to the kind we’ve seen in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Ukraine in recent years. The only difference was the result. When Chinese officials were unable to disperse the crowds and end the demonstrations Deng declared martial law in Beijing. He moved over 250,000 soldiers to the capital. These soldiers were armed with battlefield equipment, including armor piercing bullets, tracer rounds, and tanks. On June 3rd and 4th, 1989, the soldiers advanced into the city. In the past when soldiers had entered the city they would be stopped by crowds of civilians who would flood the streets. On June 4th when citizens of Beijing came out to stop the soldiers they were met with live fire. Soldiers used machine guns and rifles on crowds of unarmed civilians. Thousands of citizens were killed before the soldiers finally made it to Tiananmen Square and the demonstrators surrendered. Chinese men and women of all ages were shot, beaten, or crushed under tank treads. In the days to follow the killings continued until all trace of protest had been eliminated.

As a result of this crackdown the blossoming political reform movement was crushed. What is perhaps worse is that the Chinese government has spent the last 25 years attempting to wipe all memory of the massacre from history. Today most young Chinese do not know what occurred on that day: if they know about it at all they have been taught that it was a simple protest that was broken up and resulted in a few injuries. The government of China continues to deny that any civilians were killed on that day.

Because of this it is up to the rest of the world to remember. Someday, perhaps, China will be free and the massacre of June 4th will be remembered as it should. Until that day comes it is the duty of all free people to remember this atrocity.

Please take some time to read this article, where Chinese journalist Jan Wong is interviewed about her experience as a witness of the massacre. Her words are much stronger than mine, and I highly suggest you read through that interview. If you want to learn more, see if you can find a copy of her book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited .

Dr. Ehrman’s Improbable Objection to the Empty Tomb

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I was wandering about the internet, as is my custom, when I suddenly came across an article on the Daily Beast titled “Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?” by Bart Ehrman. The article began by listing the many objections apologists have towards the idea that there was no empty tomb. Ehrman even concedes that they are excellent objections. However, despite admitting that all of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb are improbable; he rejects the idea of the empty tomb all the same. Why? Well for one simple reason, as he explains below:

“But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all ‘probability.’ Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability.”

This passage contained so much objective wrongness in its argument that I was driven to internally rant about it for about an hour. And thus this post was born.
To be sure, the idea that a dead body could spontaneously resurrect itself is massively improbable. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any other explanation for a resurrection should be preferred over the idea that a body just happened to bring itself back to life. What is often forgotten is that God resurrecting the body is one of those preferable explanations.

Really there is no point in judging whether or not a miracle is probable until we have settled the question of whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then miracles are the most singularly improbable things imaginable. If God does exist then miracles are just as probable as any other action we can imagine an individual taking. There is a pen lying on the desk next to me. There would be very little point in me asking you “What is the probability that I will pick up that pen in the next five minutes?” The answer is that it depends on whether or not I decide to. If I decide to pick up the pen then it is an almost 100% probability that I will do so (“almost” because I may suffer a freak heart attack, or an earthquake might strike, or some similar improbable event will prevent me from doing so). If I decide to leave it alone then the probability is almost 0% that I’ll pick up the pen (though again, freak incidents could cause me to do so, such as a madman bursting in and forcing me to pick it up at gunpoint). Thus it is with the resurrection of Jesus: if God exists and chose to raise Jesus from the dead then the probability of that resurrection is 100%. If God does not exist, or exists but chose not to resurrect Jesus, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is 0%. The question, naturally, is whether or not God exists, and whether he is the Christian God if he does.

This being the case I am greatly dismayed when I see individuals dismiss any and all historical evidence that seems to indicate that Jesus was resurrected out of hand because they believe that “Any explanation is more probable than a resurrection actually occurring.” This assumes that God does not exist: and how can we determine the probability of the existence of God? Probabilities are only useful for events that occur in patterns or with defined odds. There are no odds on whether God exists, and God is not an event that occurs in patterns. Better to be honest instead and say that “I believe that it is more probable that very improbable things (such as mass hallucinations, for instance) actually occurred then that God might exist and be active in our world.” At this point we can have a real conversation about why you believe God’s existence is so improbable, and why I believe otherwise. But no more of this nonsense of defining miracles as the most improbable thing imaginable and then crowing that you win the fight be default. I might as well define miracles as the most probable thing imaginable and leave it at that: it does as much good for the discussion.

But wait, you might say. Even Christians agree that miracles are something out of the ordinary and unusual. Surely if you asked most educated Christians about whether an event is likely to be a miracle (say, for instance, the image of Jesus appearing on some toast) they are likely to agree that a natural explanation is more likely. This is true, but it misses the point. I believe that it is extremely improbable that a piece of toast emblazoned with Jesus’s image is a miracle not because miracles are by definition improbable but because I think it’s highly improbable that God would decide to put his mark a random piece of burnt bread. Similarly, if I found a piece of toast that looked uncannily like my cousin Haley I would think it improbable that she deliberately messed with the wiring of my toaster and think it far more probable that it was a simple chance occurrence.

When an event occurs that has many possible natural explanations the probability that it was a miracle seems lower, such as my example with toast. Just the other day I was run off the road by a careless driver. I slammed on my brakes, steered out of the way as best I could, and ended by fishtailing out of control until I came to a stop. Somehow, though I had lost all control over the vehicle by the end, I had managed to weave between two signs and come to a stop inches from a steel fence pole. As I got back on the road and continued on my way (the car that caused the incident had sped away without a moment’s hesitation) I thanked God that I was unharmed. I began to wonder: could this have been a miracle? Could God’s hand or an angel’s wings have brought my car to a stop just in time? I considered the possibility. I have no doubt that God is capable of intervening in such a fashion, but I also know that good people get in bad car accidents every day, accidents that God could have prevented. I also know that it is very possible that I avoided danger by purely natural means: my own quick reflexes and pure luck. With that being the case I am very hesitant to ascribe my good fortune as a miracle. It seems possible, but not necessarily probable.

The resurrection is another story altogether. There are not many plausible natural explanations for a crucified man who was stabbed with a spear, proclaimed dead, embalmed, and left in a tomb for three days suddenly showing up and walking around again. If the thing happened at all then it is certainly a far more probable candidate for a miracle than my own traffic incident, and exponentially more probable than Jesus shaped toast. The question then becomes “Did this thing happen?” This is an important question to ask, and I’ll happily discuss it with anyone. Just remember not to dismiss the possibility of miraculous resurrection out of hand due to “probability.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Let’s Talk About My Favorite Saint!

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It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m rocking a nice emerald green shirt today. I’ve always been fond of St. Patrick’s Day because I love the color green.  I hope all of you are having as fun a St. Pattie’s day as I am!

Now I’m not Catholic, but of all the Catholic saints I’ve read about I’d have to say that St. Patrick is my favorite. Why?  Let me tell you.

St. Patrick was born to a Roman family living in Roman occupied England. This was late in the life of the Roman Empire and Patrick’s families were Christians. Patrick was a nominal Christian, but didn’t have a particularly strong belief.  Life was probably pretty decent for Patrick growing up, until in the middle of his adolescence he was kidnapped by barbarians from Ireland. Ireland at this point in history was a primitive place full of warring tribes that often sailed over to England to raid and take back slaves. Patrick became such a slave and spent the next six years stranded in the middle of nowhere herding a barbarian’s sheep and trying to survive as best he could. During that time he became close to God, and gained a serious conviction in the truth of Christianity. He managed to escape Ireland and made his way back home where he joined the priesthood.

He spent several years studying when he had a dream where a voice was calling to him from Ireland saying “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Convinced that it was God’s will he traveled to Ireland and began to teach Christianity to the various clans and tribes. Though simply surviving as a foreigner without protection in Ireland was difficult he made many converts. As the number of Christian Irish grew he set up some as priests and nuns and worked to build up the church on the Emerald Isle. Some of the more historical estimates put him as having established or helped establish 300 churches and winning over 100,000 converts. Patrick essentially built Christianity in Ireland.

This would be cool enough, but the Irish church did some amazing things afterwards! You see the “barbarians” of Ireland, having now been converted began to establish monasteries across Ireland and Scotland.  Their scholars learned to read and write and they had a voracious appetite for works of literature and philosophy from the Roman Empire. Thousands of books were brought to Ireland where the monks studied them and copied them. By this time the Roman Empire was on its last legs and the continent feel into the chaos of the Early Middle Ages. Schools were abandoned, books were lost, and people worried more about survival and power than learning and education. Many scholars fled to Ireland where they had heard that monastic schools were flourishing. They brought the intellectual traditions of western civilization with them, and the Irish accepted it with glee. By the time Charlemagne managed to beat things back into shape in France the Irish were known across Europe as scholars and teachers. When Charlemagne set up his system of schools, that later became the universities that fostered education and invention throughout the rest of the Middle Ages , it was scholars from Ireland who came to teach and them and pass on the knowledge they had rescued from the fall of the Roman Empire. So much was preserved and passed on that would have otherwise been lost if it wasn’t for the Irish: and if it wasn’t for St. Patrick the Irish would have remained raiding barbarians instead of becoming peaceful scholars.

St. Patrick’s impact, and the impact of the early Irish church, can still be felt today. One man’s dedication to Christ had consequences that still reverberate over 1,500 years later.

And that’s why St. Patrick is my favorite saint.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!